State Street Ballet will open its season at the Granada on Saturday, October 6, with one of the boldest programming decisions in the company’s history. Invigorated by the recent elevation of longtime collaborator William Soleau to the title of co–artistic director and inspired by the success of a string of substantial commissions over the last several seasons, founder and executive director Rodney Gustafson has said “yes” to Chaplin, an original, evening-length story ballet. What’s more, he’s given the job of choreographing the piece to three different people.
Before you start thinking there’s been some sort of mix-up, understand that the issuing of multiple invitations was entirely intentional. Each of the choreographers — Kevin Jenkins, William Soleau, and Edgar Zendejas — has an existing relationship with the State Street Ballet (SSB); for Chaplin, they are working together as a team. Collaboration among choreographers is relatively rare, and three choreographers working on a single project is virtually unheard of. Yet when I witnessed the enthusiasm with which this group described their creative process, it was easy to see why SSB has embraced this unusual opportunity.
For Soleau, the coordinating role comes naturally. A veteran choreographer with more than 100 ballets produced in his career, Soleau knows intuitively what will work and what won’t, and how to ask a lot of the dancers without crossing over into the dangerous territory of too much. It’s his organizational skill that keeps the complex process of collaboration on track. Strips of paper describing different dances line the big mirror in the studio conference room, written in Soleau’s hand and sequenced according to his sense of the show’s big picture.
By contrast, Zendejas brings an edgy, modern athleticism to the mix that stems from his mastery of the movement vocabularies of such great dance innovators as José Limón. The third partner, Kevin Jenkins, is a prolific young dancer/choreographer whose work has been seen here twice in SSB’s Modern Masters program. He was the one who came up with the idea of making a ballet about Charlie Chaplin, and he also found Ahna Lipchik, the young dancer and new company member who will, along with 2017 arrival James Folsom, deliver the show’s primary portrayals of Chaplin.
Rather than adapting scenes from Chaplin’s films for the stage, the group has chosen to explore his life as well as his art and to embed this particular vision of his achievement in scenes that reflect the broader historical context, whether that means the surrealism of Magritte or the tragedy of the world wars. The audience will see Chaplin behind the camera as well as in front of it and witness the infectious displays of empathy that turned his signature character from a slapstick provocateur into the first truly universal protagonist in the history of film.
Even without the challenge of replicating the painstaking sight gags that suffuse Chaplin’s movies, it was difficult to get the Little Tramp’s instantly recognizable repertoire of shrugs and wriggles just right. Addressing this issue, Jenkins said that the dancers have been asked to accept an extraordinary level of micromanagement when it comes to the moves and gestures required of someone who is being Chaplinesque. “I went home after the first day of rehearsals and said, This doesn’t look right — it needs to be weirder,” said Jenkins. “So I came back the next day and added more, and finally, on day three, I just said to the dancers, ‘Okay, this needs to be insanely complex,’ and that’s when it worked.” To see the extraordinary results of this spirited collaboration, get to the Granada on Saturday, October 6, as that will be the only performance of this exceptional work this season.
State Street Ballet’s Chaplin takes place Saturday, October 6, at 7:30 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). See granadasb.org or call 899-2222.